Saturday, 15 November 2008

Piccolo Prima Donna

If I could click my fingers and magic up a lovely little neighbourhood pizzeria, it would be pretty much identical to Piccolo Prima Donna. The restaurant is located on Norwood's main drag, Grant Avenue; from the outside it looks utterly minute... and it is, with a handful of tiny tables and a large, baying crowd of Norwoodites outside howling for pizza.

A pair of vocal locals had persuaded the proprietor of Piccolo Prima Donna to give away our (booked) table a couple of minutes before we arrived, so our party sat outside, grumpily waiting for another table to become available. On finally taking our seats twenty minutes later there was some barely-stifled squeaking and excitement from some of our party when they spotted a well-known soapie star sitting at the next table - which in a venue the size of Piccolo Prima Donna means that his elbow was practically in my lap - whispering sweet nothings to an attractive but distinctly vacuous-looking younger man.

The menu is standard pizzeria fare - pizze, pasta and a couple of salads, all christened with slightly arch, operatic names - and the pizze, when they arrived, were superb. Thin, crisp crusts with a floury, slightly burnt edge, and toppings made with top quality ingredients; bearing no relation to the flabby, wet, fatty offerings churned out by franchise chains like Domino's and Debonair's.

Service is brusque, quick and businesslike. Pizze, mineral water and two bottles of wine came to slightly over R500 + tip for five of us. The restaurant's tiny size and bustling ambience mean that it might not be my first choice for a romantic assignment, but as a destination for a group of friends, or as a local take-away it's unsurpassed.

Piccolo Prima Donna
38 Grant Avenue

Telephone: (011) 483 0089

Beads, Stellenbosch

I had a flip through Beads' current menu and was interested to see that the place seems to have reinvented itself along the lines of Cafe Pasta or the Olive Garden. Its menu has transformed from a sort of eclectic pseudo-French-meets-Pacific-Rim style to a pleasant, Mediterranean-style lunchtime restaurant (sandwiches, wraps, salads), and I bet they're turning over three times the number of customers as a result.

Beads was responsible, back in August 2007, for one of the most disappointing meals I've ever had - anywhere. The radical change of menu direction since then leads me to assume that the restaurant has changed hands since.

Hurrah! Change is good.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Window, Moemas
Picture stolen from here

is the hottest thing in the world of South African baked goods since... well, perhaps since the invention of the koeksister. It's a stylish patisserie in a zhooshy corner of Parktown North. The window is packed with enough good things to bring on a sugar rush: displays of creamy tartlets, eclairs, delicate little tarts topped with raspberries or mint leaves, and bowls of chocolate meringues artfully dusted with cocoa.

The high-ceilinged shop has a row of tables occupied by kugels in sunglasses, or old men with newspapers nibbling on slices of buttery goodness capped with streusel and icing sugar. The welcome is slightly distracted - I stood awkwardly for a couple of minutes while waiting staff impatiently brushed past me - and not helped by the rather odd layout of the shop: the widest counter you've ever seen, and displays so high that staff can be seen only occasionally skulking behind the plump salmon quiches and earthenware bowls of glistening hummus.

Disconcertingly, the counter is laid out with uncovered, unrefrigerated platters of savoury food. It looks beautiful, but I couldn't help thinking "sneeze-guard". And "flies". And no, half-a-dozen citronella candles dotted between the platters is no substitute for a cover; and that verdict is delivered with the full authority of someone who once held a Basic Food Handling Certificate from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. (I mean, that practically makes me into a doctor, doll...)

There are a couple of disappointing reviews online that infer that, in the past, the welcome at Moemas has been less than perfect for some customers. Service is polite but certainly brisk; and when I lay out R21 for a chocolate tart, I expect a smile and at least a bit of eye contact. However, the cakes are superb.

Shop 1 Parktown Quarter
Corner of 7th and 3rd Avenues
Parktown North

Telephone: (011) 788 7725

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


Remember the once-great Singing Fig?

Well, Lunchtastic was right to predict its doom back in August 2007 - the Fig is, unsurprisingly, no more, and has been replaced by Faff. In a pleasing circularity, Faff is owned by Dave Wallace, who was the original creator of the Fig (back in the days when it was a pleasure to visit).

The first aspect of change is the decor - gone are the giant, off-putting nudes, replaced by bright, cartoonish canvases of brinjals and garlic and oranges in primary colours. There are luxurious brocade banquettes at the back of the room which help to absorb some of the sound, although the fact that the restaurant was no more than a quarter-full when we ate - on a Friday evening, nogal; where was everybody: credit-crunching? - kept the background chatter and gentle tango music muted to comfortable levels.

The USP is attractive but risky. Eat off the menu, or go for a Dégustation Plate and select three mini-portions per course on the same platter. Attractive because the menu is so chock-full of good stuff; risky because you need a kitchen full of chefs with good timing, and a highly organised front of house team.

My first course was a delightful slice of salmon tart, but I barely remember it. My attention was fully focused on the main course, for which I chose gnocchi with field mushrooms, brown hazelnut and sage butter; ostrich frittatella (meat balls) on creamed potatoes, roasted vegetables and gooseberry jus; and oven-roasted salmon fillet with braised red cabbage, creamed potatoes and ginger and honey jus. There's a test for any kitchen: meatballs, pasta and fish to go out on the same plate at the same time. And that's not mentioning the choices of my other three companions.

The main course was masterful: intense, gamy, ostrich meatballs with a rich sauce, and fantastic gnocchi whose sauce was packed with flavours of autumn - mushrooms, hazelnuts and herbs. The salmon was perfectly cooked, and came with a spicy sauce studded with tiny shards of cloves, a wonderful combination with the strong flavours of cabbage and salmon. Criticisms? We-e-e-ll... if pushed I might gently mention that the ostrich meat had been over-processed, giving it a slightly pâté-like texture rather than the proper grainy resistance of classic frittatelle.

Desserts did not quite - almost, but not quite - live up to the sublime delight of the main course; the excellent lemon tart did not need the fatty crème fraiche that accompanied it; the chocolate torte, which came with a wonderful drunken berry compote, had a horrible base rendered gritty with undissolved granulated sugar, like eating chocolate truffles on a sandy beach during a gale. My grumpiness at these minor faults was, however, mollified by the flaky apple crisp and its sphere of pale toffee-coloured cinnamon ice-cream.

My evening at Faff was quite the best meal I have had in Johannesburg since the old Singing Fig days. The friendly and genuinely helpful service still needs some tweaking; the minute the manager (?) head waiter (?) left the restaurant (a delightful young man with the most amazing, sculpted hair) the waiting staff relaxed somewhat, to the extent that it took nearly fifteen minutes for the bill to arrive.

Things aren't totally perfect; pastry seems to be the restaurant's only weak point, and even then I managed to finish almost the entire dessert plate, bar the gritty-bottomed torte. No, it's not cool for customers to walk past an untidy linen store in order to visit the loo; yeah, it would be nice to see a couple more dessert wines available by the glass; okay, if your menu needs a glossary to make sense of it, rewrite the menu in plain English. But on the whole, I reckon Faff is currently the finest restaurant in Johannesburg.

Dinner for four, with a couple of 250ml carafes of wine (another excellent idea which should be promoted more actively by the waiting staff) came to a little over R1200 - great value for money by anybody's standards.

44 The Avenue

Tel: (011) 728 2434

Louis XVI, Rosebank, Johannesburg

I was all ready to review Louis XVI, honest I was. And then at lunchtime one day last week I used the gents' loo in the TA Centre, which is the weird building on Jan Smuts Avenue where the restaurant is located. You know: where Thrupps used to be. (And had to fight and argue with the security guard before he would let me have the key... The TA Centre also has the dodgiest ever hairdresser - the size of Harrods, about 12 hairdressers' chairs, and never a single customer. I mean that, quite literally, I have never seen any customers in there, which does make me wonder in my cynical way how they manage to pay the rent.)

The TA Centre courtyard

Picture courtesy of

As I finished peeing, out of a lavatory cubicle, to the accompaniment of flushing, emerged a man in chef's whites and a blue apron. He walked straight out of the gents and entered a door just down the corridor, which appears from the layout of the ground floor to be a sort of back door into Louis XVI.

And didn't wash his hands.

So I skipped Louis XVI.

Louis XVI
160 Jan Smuts Avenue
South Africa

Telephone: (011) 447 6244

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Josephine's, Montagu

Montagu is slightly confusing; while at first sight it appears to be a little Cape winelands dorp, if you explore a little through the streets you find that actually the higher end of town (away from the Kogmanskloof river... which floods spectacularly every few years) is filled with very larnie residences owned as holiday homes or weekend getaways by rich Capetonians. As a result, the town has a couple of decent restaurants, and we decided to visit Josephine's, a lovely little 19th century house on Bath Street, right in the middle of town.

The innovative menu includes Cape Dutch, Malay, Indian and Thai dishes: I had red Thai chickpea and banana curry, followed by tiramisu. The companion had kudu fillet in red wine sauce, with pear crumble tart and cream. A lovely fiery curry was packed with aromatic flavours, but the tiramisu was very odd and really rather nasty - consisting of layers of dry sponge cemented together with unsweetened cream cheese, dredged in cocoa. No coffee, no marsala, no fun.

The companion raved about his kudu, and it looked lovely, with a rich, wine-dark sauce and beautifully-cooked vegetables; while I sneaked a spoonful of his robust pear tart, topped with crunchy crumble. The friendly but very flustered waitress was utterly overwhelmed by four tables of customers - God only knows what would have happened if anyone else had arrived for dinner - and forgot a couple of drinks orders. She also made the mistake of switching on the overhead lights three-quarters of the way through our meal, transforming the dining room with a flick of a switch from a dusky, romantic space lit by paraffin lamps and candles into a shabby parlour illuminated by a couple of bare and glaring overhead bulbs. Not a good idea.

I'd be delighted to have a local restaurant like Josephine's in my home town, although I wonder how often the menu changes - I didn't notice any daily specials, and a limited menu could get boring quite quickly.

63 Bath Street
Eastern Cape

Tel: (023) 614 3939

Friday, 10 August 2007

Beads, Stellenbosch

The biggest disappointment in South Africa? For a long time it was a very pedestrian meal at Île Maurice in Umhlanga. But now, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to say that we have a new winner: Beads, in the lovely university town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape.

I was told in London about this new South African restaurant, Beads: "Fantastic" they said; "really innovative and interesting," they enthused. When we arrived in Stellenbosch our hosts blanched when we mentioned that we were visiting Beads: "But it's so expensive", they bleated. "I mean, they really are charging London prices". Initially I assumed this was the usual South African hyperbole, but with main courses at the rand equivalent of around £10+, Beads is priced within UK ranges - and is consequently very pricey by local standards.

Now, the location, in one of Stellenbosch's delightful oak-lined streets, is wonderful; and on a warm evening, with the sun setting through the trees and the cicadas beginning to chirp, there is nowhere lovelier. And the restaurant itself is beautiful: we sat outside on the stoep, listening to a party going on in the restaurant's gardens, and had a glass of wine. And another. And another. And then, just when we had almost finished the bottle, and one whole hour after ordering, our food arrived.

I had chosen kingklip; which arrived not only undercooked, but actually still freezing cold in the middle and with the unmistakeable grainy, watery flesh of something that has been zapped from frozen. I sent it back. It reappeared, the same fillet, still uncooked, still cold inside, and piled back on top of the original vegetables, which had clearly been left on top of the pass while someone threw the fish in the microwave for another five minutes, and were consequently by this stage also cold.

The manager had the honesty to admit that the kingklip was frozen, which made me feel even more resentful, since Stellenbosch is very close to the sea. Why is an apparently prestigious restaurant, only 10 miles from the nearest harbour, serving frozen fish at 120 bucks a pop?

Polite but painfully slow service; dreadful, dreadful food; a complaint that elicited neither surprise nor sympathy from the manager (let alone a refund); and an overambitious menu which, on the evidence of our visit, offers breathtakingly poor value for money.

I would rather stick pins in my legs than go back to this restaurant. I am even diffident about giving its address and telephone number in case some poor sap suffers the same sort of piss-poor meal as ours. But that's a chance I'm going to take. If you've had a good experience there, please let me know - surely by the law of averages they must occasionally produce something edible?

Cnr. Church and Ryneveld Streets
Eastern Cape

Tel.: (021) 886 8734